Kathy Sheridan: Rational compassion beats empathy

In the social media world the heart always wins over the head – but it shouldn’t

“The fact is, it’s not possible to feel every single person’s pain and be useful citizens.” Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

“The fact is, it’s not possible to feel every single person’s pain and be useful citizens.” Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

A family spends nearly a week chasing down the result of a biopsy. The man who holds the potentially life-changing information is the surgeon, a senior hospital consultant. He is clearly very busy. Very, very busy. And though this might seem presumptuous, so are the family members. Busy trying to hold down jobs and contracts and looking after other people; busy reassuring the hospital patient; busy trying to look normal; busy trying not to lose their minds in the most sadistic of all waiting games.

The nurses look embarrassed and utterly powerless. “Hold on and you might catch him on his rounds,” they say. Translation: try to hang on after visiting hours when he usually appears in the ward, then pounce. One suggests making a formal complaint. Apparently, such behaviour is endemic in this particular unit. One evening, the family has reached the hospital exit when word comes – from the patient – that the consultant is on the ward. They run through the hospital, down long corridors and up several flights of stairs, to “catch him”. He is busy, busy, busy, surrounded by his team and promises to talk properly soon.

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